Law & Order (1990–2010)


Law & Order (TV Series 1990–2010)

Filmed on location in New York, the drama showcases the sometimes-complex process of determining guilt or innocence, while lives hang in the balance. Often inspired by the latest headlines, the plots highlight legal, ethical or personal dilemmas to which people can relate.
IMDb   7.7 /10
TheMovieDb    7.5 /10
FilmAffinity   6.2 /10
Creator Dick Wolf
Release Date1990-09-13
GenreCrime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Content RatingTV-14 (TV-14)
AwardsWon 6 Primetime Emmys. Another 41 wins & 203 nominations.
CompanyStudios USA Television, NBC Universal Television, Universal Network Television
Lieutenant Anita Van Buren / ... 391 episodes, 1991-2010
E.A.D.A. Jack McCoy / ... 368 episodes, 1994-2010
Detective Lennie Briscoe / ... 274 episodes, 1991-2004
D.A. Adam Schiff 229 episodes, 1990-2000
Detective Ed Green 198 episodes, 1999-2008

Law & Order

Law & Order is an American police procedural and legal drama television series created by Dick Wolf, launching the Law & Order franchise. Airing its entire run on NBC, Law & Order premiered on September 13, 1990 and completed its twentieth and final season on May 24, 2010.

Set and filmed in New York City, the series follows a two-part approach: the first half-hour is the investigation of a crime (usually murder) and apprehension of a suspect by New York City Police Department detectives; the second half is the prosecution of the defendant by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Plots are often based on real cases that recently made headlines, although the motivation for the crime and the perpetrator may be different.

The show has had a revolving cast over the years. Among the longest-running main cast members were Steven Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff (seasons 1–10), Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe (seasons 3–14), S. Epatha Merkerson as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (seasons 4–20), Sam Waterston as Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy (seasons 5–20; later District Attorney) and Jesse L. Martin as Detective Ed Green (seasons 10–18).

Law & Order's twenty seasons are second only to its spin-off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999–present) for the longest-running live-action scripted American primetime series. The success of the series has led to the creation of additional shows, making Law & Order a franchise, with also a television film, several video games, and international adaptations of the series. It has won and has been nominated for numerous awards over the years, including a number of Emmy Awards.

On May 14, 2010, NBC announced that it had canceled Law & Order and would air its final episode on May 24, 2010. Immediately following the show's cancellation, Wolf attempted to find a new home for the series. Those attempts failed, and in July 2010, Wolf declared that the series had now "moved to the history books".

On October 28, 2020, it was announced that a TV special titled The Paley Center Presents Law & Order: Before They Were Stars will premiere on November 12, 2020.


History and development

In 1988, Dick Wolf developed a concept for a new television series that would depict a relatively optimistic picture of the American criminal justice system. He initially toyed with the idea of calling it Night & Day but then hit upon the title Law & Order. The first half of each episode would follow two detectives (a senior and a junior detective) and their commanding officer as they investigate a violent crime.

The second half of the episode would follow the District Attorney's Office and the courts as two prosecutors, with advice from the District Attorney himself, attempt to convict the accused. Through this, Law & Order would be able to investigate some of the larger issues of the day by focusing on stories that were based on real cases making headlines.

Wolf took the idea to then-president of Universal Television Kerry McCluggage, who pointed out the similarity to a 1963 series titled Arrest and Trial, which lasted one season. The two watched the pilot of that series, in which a police officer (Ben Gazzara) arrested a man for armed robbery in the first half, and the defense attorney, played by Chuck Connors, gets the perpetrator off as the wrong guy in the second half; this was the formula of the show every week.

Wolf decided that, while his detectives would occasionally also be fallible, he wanted a fresh approach to the genre, to go from police procedural to prosecution with a greater degree of realism. In addition, the prosecution would be the hero, a reversal of the usual formula in lawyer dramas.

Initially, Fox ordered 13 episodes based on the concept alone, with no pilot. Then-network head Barry Diller reversed the decision. Although he loved the idea, he didn't believe it was a "Fox show." Wolf then went to CBS, which ordered a pilot, "Everybody's Favorite Bagman", written by Wolf about corrupt city officials involved with the mob. The network liked the pilot but did not order it because there were no breakout stars.

In the summer of 1989, NBC's top executives, Brandon Tartikoff and Warren Littlefield, screened the pilot and liked it; but they were concerned the intensity of the series could not be repeated week after week. However, by 1990, NBC executives had enough confidence that the innovative show could appeal to a wide audience that they ended up ordering the series for a full season.


The series was shot on location in New York City and is known for its extensive use of local color. The sets were located at Chelsea Piers. In early episodes courtroom scenes were shot at Tweed Courthouse before a courtroom set was built. In later seasons, New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, attorney William Kunstler and Bronx Congressman José Serrano all appeared on the show as themselves.

Local personalities also had recurring cameos as fictional characters, such as Donna Hanover and Fran Lebowitz as judges. On September 14, 2004, in New York City, a road leading to Pier 62 at Chelsea Piers (where the series was mostly shot) was renamed "Law & Order Way" in tribute to the series.

Music and sound effects

Audio samples of Law & Order (media help)

Opening Theme

The Law & Order "clang" sound

Problems playing these files? See media help.

The music for Law & Order was composed by veteran composer Mike Post, and was deliberately designed to be minimal to match the abbreviated style of the series. Post wrote the theme song using electric piano, guitar, and clarinet. In addition, scene changes were accompanied by a tone generated by Post. He refers to the tone as "The Clang", while Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker has referred to the sound as the "ominous chung CHUNG", actor Dann Florek (in a promo) as the "doink doink", and Richard Belzer as "the Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound".

The tone moves the viewer from scene to scene, jumping forward in time with all the importance and immediacy of a judge's gavel – which is exactly what Post was aiming for when he created it. While reminiscent of a jail door slamming, it is actually an amalgamation of "six or seven" sounds, including the sound made by 500 Japanese men walking across a hardwood floor. The sound has become so associated with the Law & Order brand that it was also carried over to other series of the franchise.

The UK-aired Channel Five versions of seasons 7–16 of Law & Order feature the song "I'm Not Driving Anymore" by Rob Dougan in the opening credits, while later Seasons 17–20 used the US theme.

Casting and characters

George DzundzaMax GreeveySergeant1
Chris NothMike LoganJunior Detective1–5Also appeared in
Exiled: A Law & Order Movie.
Dann FlorekDonald CragenCaptain1–35, 10, 15Also appeared in
Exiled: A Law & Order Movie.
Michael MoriartyBen StoneExecutive Assistant District Attorney1–4
Richard BrooksPaul RobinetteAssistant District Attorney1-36, 16, 17
Steven HillAdam SchiffDistrict Attorney1–10
Paul SorvinoPhil CerretaSergeant2–33
Jerry OrbachLennie BriscoeSenior Detective3–14
Carolyn McCormickDr. Elizabeth OlivetPsychologist3–45, 6, 7, 13,
14, 16, 17, 18
9, 10, 19, 20
S. Epatha MerkersonAnita Van BurenLieutenant4–20
Jill HennessyClaire KincaidAssistant District Attorney4–6
Sam WaterstonJack McCoyExecutive Assistant District Attorney,
District Attorney
Benjamin BrattRey CurtisJunior Detective6–9
Carey LowellJamie RossAssistant District Attorney7–8
Angie HarmonAbbie CarmichaelAssistant District Attorney9–11
Jesse L. MartinEd GreenJunior Detective,
Senior Detective
Dianne WiestNora LewinInterim District Attorney11–12
Elisabeth RöhmSerena SoutherlynAssistant District Attorney12–15
Fred Dalton ThompsonArthur BranchDistrict Attorney13–17
Dennis FarinaJoe FontanaSenior Detective15–16
Michael ImperioliNick FalcoJunior Detective1516Temporarily Assigned
Annie ParisseAlexandra BorgiaAssistant District Attorney15–16
Milena GovichNina CassadyJunior Detective17
Alana de la GarzaConnie RubirosaAssistant District Attorney17–20
Jeremy SistoCyrus LupoJunior Detective,
Senior Detective
Linus RoacheMichael CutterExecutive Assistant District Attorney18–20
Anthony AndersonKevin BernardJunior Detective18–20

For the 1988 pilot, George Dzundza and Chris Noth were cast as the original detectives, Sergeant Max Greevey and Detective Mike Logan. The producers felt that Dzundza would be a perfect senior police officer as he was someone the producers felt they could see themselves riding along with in a police cruiser. Noth and Michael Madsen were candidates for the role of Logan. Madsen initially was considered the perfect choice for the role, but, in a final reading, it was felt that Madsen's acting mannerisms were repetitive, and Noth received the role instead. Rounding out the police cast, Dann Florek was cast as Captain Donald Cragen.

On the prosecutor's side, Michael Moriarty was Dick Wolf's choice to play Executive Assistant District Attorney Benjamin "Ben" Stone. The network, however, preferred James Naughton, but, in the end, Wolf's choice would prevail, and Moriarty received the role. As his ADA, Richard Brooks and Eriq La Salle were being considered for the role of Paul Robinette. The network favored La Salle but, once again, the producers' choice prevailed, and Brooks received the role. As their boss, Roy Thinnes was cast as District Attorney Alfred Wentworth.

Nearly two years passed between the pilot and production of the series. The producers held options on Dzundza, Noth, Moriarty and Brooks. Each was paid holding money for the additional year and brought back. Florek also returned. Thinnes, however, was starring in Dark Shadows and declined to return. In his place, the producers tapped Steven Hill to play District Attorney Adam Schiff, a character loosely based on real-life New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Hill brought prestige and experience to the show and, as such, the producers allowed Hill to give insight on the direction he thought the character should go.

Dzundza was disappointed when he realized that the show would be more of an ensemble show rather than a show starring him. Though the cast liked his performance, they increasingly felt uncomfortable around Dzundza, who was also under stress due to the constant commute between New York City and his home in Los Angeles. Dzundza quit after only one season on the show, and Sergeant Greevey was written off as being killed in the line of duty.

He was replaced by Paul Sorvino as Sergeant Phil Cerreta, who was considered more even tempered than either Dzundza's Greevey or Mike Logan. Sorvino was initially excited about the role, but would leave midway through the next season, citing the exhausting schedule demanded by the filming of the show, a need to broaden his horizons, and the desire to preserve his vocal cords for singing opera as reasons for leaving the show. Sergeant Cerreta was written off as having been shot in the line of duty and transferring to a desk job at another precinct.

To replace Sorvino on the series, Wolf cast Jerry Orbach (who had previously guest starred as a defense attorney Frank Lehrman in the Season 2 episode "The Wages of Love") in the role of Detective Leonard W. "Lennie" Briscoe. Orbach's characterization of the world-weary, wisecracking Detective Briscoe was based on a similar NYPD character he portrayed in the 1981 film Prince Of The City, which Wolf had personally requested Orbach to replicate for the show.

Introduced on a recurring basis during Season 2 was Carolyn McCormick as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet, a police psychologist brought in on a case-by-case basis. NBC had been pushing for the producers to add female characters to the all-male cast. She was added to the opening credits as "also starring" in Season 3 and 4 but, despite the attempts of the producers to include her in as many episodes as possible, it was found to be difficult to incorporate her into the show due to the format leaning heavily on the police and prosecutors. She was removed from the credits in Season 5.

McCormick stayed with the show on a recurring basis, but believed that the character had become less profound and complex, and that her role had been reduced mostly to "psychobabble". She left to star on Cracker after Season 7. After the cancellation of Cracker, she returned beginning in Season 13 and appeared occasionally until Season 20.

By the end of Season 3, NBC executives still felt the show did not have enough female characters. On the orders of then-network president Warren Littlefield, new female characters had to be added to the cast or the show would face possible cancellation on its relegated Friday night time slot. Wolf realized that, since there were only six characters on the show, someone had to be dismissed. He chose to dismiss Florek and Brooks from the regular roster, and later said it was the hardest two phone calls he had ever made. Though producers initially claimed the firings, especially that of Brooks, who was said not to get along with Moriarty, were for other reasons, Wolf confirmed that the firings were on the orders of Littlefield.

To replace Florek, S. Epatha Merkerson was cast as new squad leader Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. (Merkerson had previously guest starred as a mother of a gunshot victim in the Season 1 episode "Mushrooms".) To replace Brooks, Jill Hennessy was cast as Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid. Though no initial explanation was given on the show for the departures of Florek's or Brooks's characters, they would both later return in guest appearances, with Captain Cragen having been reassigned to the Internal Affairs Bureau and ADA Robinette having become a defense attorney. Florek also returned to direct a few episodes, and his character was eventually added to the cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Meanwhile, Moriarty's behavior both on and off the set became problematic for Wolf. After a public statement in which Moriarty called Attorney General Janet Reno a "psychopathic Nazi" for her efforts to censor television violence, Moriarty engaged in a verbal confrontation with Reno at a dinner in Washington, D.C. Wolf asked Moriarty to tone down his comments, and Moriarty responded by quitting the show the next week. This could have been caused by his drinking, as he admits (in his Wikipedia article) to being "a very bad drunk" before going on the wagon in Feb 2004. The final storyline for Ben Stone involved him resigning over guilt after a woman he compelled to testify against a Russian mobster was murdered by his cohorts. To replace Moriarty, Sam Waterston was Wolf's first choice for the role of Executive Assistant District Attorney John J. "Jack" McCoy Jr.; Waterston's character was markedly different from Moriarty's in that Jack McCoy was conceived as more emotionally stable and having more sex appeal.

Wolf dismissed Noth when his contract expired at the end of Season 5, because he felt that Lennie Briscoe and Mike Logan had become too similar to each other and the writers were having difficulty in writing their dialogue together. Furthermore, Noth had been disgruntled with the show since the dismissals of Florek and Brooks, and remained embittered against Wolf, who he felt was not a friend to his actors. The final story line for Detective Logan involved him being banished to work on Staten Island in a domestic violence crimes unit as punishment for punching a city council member who had orchestrated the murder of a gay colleague and had managed to get acquitted of the charges. (The made-for-television film Exiled: A "Law & Order" Movie, in which Noth starred, centered around Logan attempting to get back into the department's good graces.) Noth was replaced by Benjamin Bratt as Detective Reynaldo "Rey" Curtis, who was hired in an attempt to find an actor even sexier than Noth to join the cast.

Hennessy chose not to renew her three-year contract at the end of Season 6 to pursue other projects, and Claire Kincaid was written off as being killed in a drunk driving accident. She was replaced by Carey Lowell as Assistant District Attorney Jamie Ross. Lowell remained with the show until the end of Season 8, when she left to spend more time with her daughter. (Jamie Ross was written off as leaving the D.A.'s office for similar reasons.) Lowell (who later returned for a couple guest appearances) was replaced by Angie Harmon as Assistant District Attorney Abigail "Abbie" Carmichael, who was conceived as being much louder and outspoken than any of her predecessors. Harmon auditioned with 85 other women, including Vanessa Williams, for the role, and was picked after Wolf heard her Texas accent.

Beginning in Season 8 (1997), J. K. Simmons had the recurring role of Dr. Emil Skoda, a psychiatrist who worked with the Police Department. He appeared in 41 episodes until 2004. He then reappeared for three episodes in the final season.

Bratt left the series at the end of Season 9, stating it was an amicable departure and he expected to eventually return for guest appearances. (He ultimately returned for the Season 20 episode "Fed".) Detective Curtis was written off as leaving the force in order to take care of his wife, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, in her final days. He was replaced by Jesse L. Martin as Detective Ed Green, who was conceived of as more of a loose cannon in the mold of Noth's Logan than Bratt's Curtis was. (Briscoe was described as being a recovering alcoholic, as Cragen had been; Green was described as being a recovering compulsive gambler.) In 2000, Steven Hill announced he was leaving the series after Season 10. Hill, who was the last remaining member of the original cast, said his departure was mutual with the producers. He was replaced by Dianne Wiest as Interim District Attorney Nora Lewin, and Adam Schiff was written out off-screen as departing to work with Jewish charities and human-rights organizations in Europe.

The following year, Harmon left the show after three seasons (with Abbie Carmichael written off as being called on to serve the U.S. Attorney's office) and was replaced by Elisabeth Röhm as Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn. The year after that, Wiest left the show after two seasons and was replaced by retiring U.S. Senator Fred Thompson as District Attorney Arthur Branch, whose character was conceived of as being much more right-leaning than his predecessors in the DA's office, and was a direct reaction to the September 11 attacks. No mention was made on the show of what happened to Nora Lewin, though producers said her character was only supposed to be an interim DA.

After 12 years on Law & Order, Orbach announced in March 2004 that he was leaving the show at the end of Season 14 for the spin-off Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Lennie Briscoe was written off as retiring from the NYPD and later taking a position as an investigator for the DA's office. He was replaced at the 27th Precinct by Detective Joe Fontana, played by Dennis Farina. At the time, Orbach would not state the reason for his departure, but it was eventually revealed that he had been battling prostate cancer (for over 10 years) and that his role on Trial by Jury was designed to be less taxing on him than his role on the original series was. However, Orbach died from his cancer on December 28, 2004 and was featured in only the first two episodes of Trial by Jury. (His character was subsequently written off as having also died off-screen, though this was not revealed on the original series until the Season 18 episode "Burn Card".)

Season 15 would see the departure of Röhm mid-season. Röhm's final scene on the show, in the episode "Ain't No Love", sparked controversy within the fanbase, as ADA Southerlyn asked Arthur Branch if she was being fired because she was a lesbian, a fact the scripts had never even hinted at until then. Wolf said Röhm's departure was unexpected, and she exited the show in January 2005. For a few seasons, she had often argued opposing points to McCoy and Branch, and he thought she would be better as a defender rather than a prosecutor. Her replacement was Annie Parisse as Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Borgia.

Later that season, Martin departed early to film Rent. Ed Green was temporarily written off as being shot in the line of duty and being replaced during his recovery by Detective Nick Falco, played by Michael Imperioli, who had previously guest starred as a murder suspect in the Season 6 episode "Atonement". Parisse left the series at the end of Season 16 (with ADA Borgia written off as being murdered), and Farina announced shortly afterward that he too was leaving Law & Order to pursue other projects. (Detective Fontana was written off as having retired off-screen.)

By this point, NBC executives believed the series was beginning to show its age, as the ratings had been declining since Orbach's departure. Farina had never been popular with fans when he replaced Orbach, and it was felt that the cast just did not seem to mesh well together anymore. In an effort to revitalize the show, Wolf replaced Parisse with Alana de la Garza as Assistant District Attorney Consuela "Connie" Rubirosa, while Martin's Green was promoted to senior detective and partnered with Detective Nina Cassady, played by Milena Govich, who had worked with Wolf on the short-lived series Conviction and served as the show's first female detective of the main cast.

However, Govich proved to be even more unpopular with fans than her predecessor was, and she left the show after one season, with the explanation being that Detective Cassady's assignment to the precinct had been temporary and had been transferred out. She was replaced by Jeremy Sisto, who had previously guest starred as a defense attorney in the Season 17 episode "The Family Hour", as Detective Cyrus Lupo. Around the same time, Thompson announced he would leave the show to seek the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. (No explanation was given within the show regarding Arthur Branch's off-screen departure.) Waterston's character was promoted to Interim District Attorney (later made full District Attorney in Season 20) and his former position was filled in by Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter, played by Linus Roache.

Martin later announced that he would leave the show for the second and last time near the end of Season 18 to pursue other endeavors, and Detective Green was written off as resigning from the force due to burnout. He was replaced by Anthony Anderson as Detective Kevin Bernard. In 2010, Merkerson announced that she would leave the show at the end of Season 20, with Lieutenant Van Buren given a season-long story arc involving her battling cervical cancer. However, the cancellation of the show rendered this moot.


—Opening narration, spoken by Steven Zirnkilton.

Law & Order episodes are typically segmented into two parts, roughly at the halfway point; the first part follows police and detective work, and the second follows the legal and courtroom proceedings of the case. The show dwells little on the characters' back-stories or social lives, and focuses instead mainly on their involvement in the cases presented in each episode.

Police portion

For most of Law & Order's run, the cold open or lead-in of the show began with the discovery of a crime, usually a murder. The scene typically began with a slice of everyday life in New York City. Some civilians would then discover the crime victim, or sometimes the crime would occur in a public place and they would be witnesses or a victim of a crime. The only exception to this is in the early seasons, mostly Seasons 1 & 2, the crime would usually be discovered by a pair of uniformed officers on patrol or in later seasons when the cold open was replaced with rapid cuts of the victim's final moments, similar to Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

The police are represented in the show by the New York City Police Department 27th Precinct Homicide Department. In the show, it is common that the detectives also investigate other cases other than homicide or attempted homicides like kidnappings and rape, the latter especially in the first nine seasons of the show before Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premiered. However, in the real world, these cases are handled by other units and divisions.

The viewers are introduced to two homicide detectives, a senior detective (usually a veteran cop) and a junior detective (usually a young but capable detective), who report directly to their boss at their precinct (either a Lieutenant or a Captain). When they first arrive at the crime scene they are met by the first responding officer or a Crime Scene Unit (CSU) forensic technician, who will inform the two lead detectives on everything known at that point. It's during their preliminary crime scene examination that the featured detectives will make their first observations and come up with some theories followed by a witticism or two before the title sequence begins.

The detectives often have few or no good clues—they might not even know the victim's identity—and must usually chase several dead ends before finding a likely suspect(s). They start their investigations at the crime scene by talking to any witnesses at the scene while the CSU technicians assist them in the processing of the crime scene as well as determining the proper routing of evidence between the Medical Examiner's office, the Crime Lab and the NYPD Property Clerks office. The CSU has many tools at their disposal to process a crime scene including the materials needed to develop fingerprints, cast footwear and tire impressions, follow the trajectory of bullets fired through windows and the chemicals necessary to observe blood under special lighting conditions that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. The unit is also trained to process a crime scene in a hazardous environment, for example following a nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

The medical examiner (M.E.)'s office will also be shown to collect the body from the crime scene and will later perform an autopsy on the victim(s), offering more clues to the victim's cause and time of death (sometimes obtaining the victim's identity from dental records or fingerprints) which the detectives will read about in the M.E.'s autopsy report and by talking to the M.E. who performed it.

When the detectives know the victim's identity they will inform their relatives or loved ones of their death and attempt to get more information on the victim's life and possible suspects. The detectives continue their investigation by interviewing witnesses and possible suspects, all the while tracing the victim's last known movements and victim's state of mind (by talking to the victim's family, friends and co-workers). Sometimes they will have someone they suspect of the crime and in checking their alibi they will trace the last known movements and the state of mind of the current suspect by talking to the people in the person(s) life until they are either ruled out or dead certain of the guilt of the person they suspect.

In later seasons CCTV, GPS and Cell phone tracking might be used to trace suspect(s) and victim(s) movements by the Police. The detectives may even ask victims and witnesses to look through photographs in mug books or to view police lineups where they will try and identify the suspect(s). If gang or drug connections are suspected the detectives might talk to other Police units/squad specializing in those types of crimes. They may even approach Criminal Informants to see if they have heard anything on the street about the crime itself.

The detectives also visit the crime lab to submit and view evidence (e.g. fingerprints, DNA and ballistics, etc.), they may also look into any background information such as financial details and criminal history on both the victim and lead suspect. In some instances, psychologists and/or psychiatrists are called in for insight into the criminal's behavior or modus operandi. All the while, the detectives report to their commanding officer, keeping them informed and being advised on how best to proceed next.

When the detectives are certain they have the right suspect(s), the police will take the case to their boss, who decides if there is enough for a search and/or arrest warrant (though sometimes the commanding officer will consult with the New York City District Attorney's office to see if the case is strong enough) and whether or not any backup (such as uniformed officers or an armed tactical team) is needed. The detectives will then arrest the suspects(s) and read them their miranda rights, though sometimes the police might have to chase the accused through the streets of New York.

The scene might shift to the interrogation room where the detectives interrogate the suspect(s) until they either confess, ask for a lawyer, their defense attorney shows up and asks the suspect not to talk anymore, or the Assistant District Attorney from the D.A.'s office decides they have enough to press charges.

Trial portion

The matter is then taken over by a pair of Prosecutors who represent the New York County District Attorney's Office, an Executive Assistant District Attorney (E.A.D.A) and an Assistant District Attorney (A.D.A). Unlike many other legal dramas (e.g., The Defenders, Matlock, Perry Mason and L.A. Law), the court proceedings are shown from the prosecution's point-of-view, with the regular characters trying to prove the defendant's guilt, not innocence. The two lead prosecutors will also consult at various stages of the trial with their boss, the district attorney, for advice on the case, as the D.A., being an elected official, sometimes brings political considerations to bear concerning decisions to prosecute the various alleged offenders.

The A.D.A. is usually introduced in an arraignment court scene, in which the defendants plead (usually not guilty) and bail conditions are set. However, sometimes they might appear earlier in the episode during the police segment to arrange a plea-for-information deal or to decide if the detectives have enough evidence for search and/or arrest warrants.

After the arraignment of defendants, the E.A.D.A. and A.D.A. will have a meeting with the accused and their defense attorney to discuss a plea bargain. The prosecutors will lay out the evidence against the accused, while the defense attorney will point out any holes in the D.A.'s case and point out alternative theories of the crime, or tell them about their defense strategies for court. The meeting usually ends with the plea bargain being declined and the defendant and attorney deciding to take a chance in court, though these type of meetings might occur again later in the episode if new information is discovered.

The D.A.s then proceed to prepare for the trial of the people's case in the New York Supreme Court. This may include legal research, preparing witnesses' testimonies, and sorting through relevant evidence. To strengthen their case, the team might conduct their own investigations, sometimes with help from the police, even though in real life, this would be done by the District Attorney's own Investigation Unit.

Some episodes include legal proceedings beyond the testimony of witnesses, including motion hearings, often concerning the admissibility of evidence; jury selection; and allocutions, usually as a result of plea bargains. Many episodes employ motions to suppress evidence as a plot device, and most of these end with evidence or statements being suppressed, often on a technicality. This usually begins with the service of the motion to the D.A. team, follows with argument and case citations of precedent before a judge in court, and concludes with a visual reaction of the winning or losing attorney. Sometimes, the motions might go before the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, to get a conclusive judgment.

During the trial, both the prosecutor (usually the E.A.D.A.) and lead defence attorney take turns arguing their cases in front of the jury. They both directly examine and cross-examine the witnesses asking them questions that support the arguments for their case or sowing seeds of doubt in their rival's case. Some of the people interviewed by the police in the first half (the witness's, previous suspects, and family members of both criminal defendant(s) and victim(s)) will return to be put on the stand to testify for either side, depending on which party has subpoenaed them. Also, professional testimony is given from the Medical Examiner's, Crime Lab technicians (including fingerprint analysts, DNA profilers and ballistics analysts), and psychologists or psychiatrists (if the defendant uses an insanity plea). They will also object when each other goes beyond the scope of what the law will allow, e.g. "leading/badgering the witness", "Assuming facts, not in evidence", etc. to which the judge will either sustain (allow) or overrule (deny). The judge might even ask them to approach the bench or ask the two parties to meet in his chambers for further arguments away from a jury.

Many episodes use outlandish defence scenarios such as diminished responsibility (e.g. "Genetics"/"Television"/"God"/"the devil made me do it" and intoxication defence) and temporary insanity (e.g. "Black Rage"/"White Rage"/"Sports Rage"). Some episodes revolve around moral and ethical debates including the "right to die" (euthanasia), the "right to life" (abortion), capital punishment (the death penalty) and the "right to bear arms" (gun control).

Near the end of the trial, the jury will break to deliberate their verdict (off-screen) and if once agreed upon the trial will continue, with the jury foreperson reading out the final verdict (either guilty or not guilty) to the court. Either verdict will show the reaction of both parties with the guilty verdict showing the defendant being handcuffed by the bailiff and led away to await sentencing usually a prison term unless they are found insane, which usually means being sent to a secure psychiatric facility. If the defendant is found not guilty they will be released and will thank their attorney before rejoining their family. The audience will also see the prosecutors look at the family of the victim to see their reaction to the verdict whether positive or negative.

The scene may then show the prosecution team leaving the office or court to go home while contemplating either the true guilt of the accused, the defense scenarios that were used, or the moral or ethical issue that was central to the episode. Alternatively, the final few minutes of the episode may be at the DA's office or detention facility whereby the prosecution makes a final plea offer to the defendant or the defense seeks one from the prosecution. In such a case, the defendant may or may not be shown allocuting his or her crime to the court. In a few episodes, the final verdict or the outcome of any ensuing plea negotiations may not be known to the audience.

"Ripped from the headlines"

Often the plot of an initial portion of an episode resembles a recognizable aspect of an actual case. In early seasons, the details of these cases often closely followed the real stories, such as the season one episode "Subterranean Homeboy Blues", which had a woman shooting two attempted muggers, paralleling the Bernhard Goetz case. Another early episode, "Out of the Half-Light", focused on a racially charged rape case that mimicked the Tawana Brawley case. This "ripped from the headlines" style is reflected in the opening credits sequence that evolves from newspaper halftones to high-resolution photos. Another first-season episode, "Poison Ivy", was based on the Edmund Perry case where an NYPD officer fatally shot a black honor student who was committing a crime in front of the officer upon returning to the city after recently graduating from an Ivy League prep school. Later seasons would take real-life cases as inspiration but diverge more from the facts. Often this would be done by increasing the severity of the crime in question, usually by adding a murder. As a result, the plot would tend to veer significantly from the actual events that may have inspired the episode. Promotional advertisements of episodes with close real-life case parallels regularly use the "ripped from the headlines" phrase, although a textual disclaimer, within the actual episode, emphasizes that the story and characters are fictional. This format lends itself to exploring different outcomes or motives that similar events could have had under other circumstances.

Some real-life crime victims have felt used and exploited, with one lawyer, Ravi Batra, going so far as to sue the show in 2004 for libel.


SeasonEpisodesOriginally airedRankAvg. rating/
Avg. viewers
First airedLast aired
122September 13, 1990June 9, 1991#4612.1
222September 17, 1991May 12, 1992#4612.3
322September 23, 1992May 19, 1993#5610.2
422September 15, 1993May 25, 1994#3811.9
523September 21, 1994May 24, 1995#2711.6
623September 20, 1995May 22, 1996#2410.9
723September 18, 1996May 21, 1997#2710.5
824September 24, 1997May 20, 1998#2414.1
924 + filmSeptember 23, 1998May 26, 1999#2013.8
1024September 22, 1999May 24, 2000#1316.3
1124October 18, 2000May 23, 2001#1117.7
1224September 26, 2001May 22, 2002#718.7
1324October 2, 2002May 21, 2003#1017.3
1424September 24, 2003May 19, 2004#1415.9
1524September 22, 2004May 18, 2005#2513.0
1622September 21, 2005May 17, 2006#3511.2
1722September 22, 2006May 18, 2007#549.4
1818January 2, 2008May 21, 2008#389.7
1922November 5, 2008June 3, 2009#628.2
2023September 25, 2009May 24, 2010#607.2

Law & Order premiered September 13, 1990, and aired on NBC, with 456 episodes having been produced.

Broadcast history

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The show premiered September 13, 1990, and ended on May 24, 2010. 456 episodes were aired and produced. The show ran for twenty seasons on NBC. It was NBC's longest running crime drama, and tied for longest running primetime scripted drama with Gunsmoke. The first two seasons were broadcast Tuesdays at 10 p.m. From season 3 through 16 the show aired Wednesday at 10 p.m. For season 17 it moved to Fridays at 10 p.m. For seasons 18 and 19 the show shifted back to Wednesdays at 10 p.m. For season 20 the show was broadcast Fridays at 8 p.m., while in the spring it moved to Mondays at 10 p.m., where it broadcast its series finale on May 24, 2010.

Syndication and streaming

Repeats of Law & Order were first broadcast weekdays on cable TV network A&E during the 1995/1996 season. The A&E broadcasts are credited with drawing a new, much larger audience to the current weekly NBC Law & Order episodes. A&E did not renew in 2002 as the price was four times the original contract price. As of 2019, the series is being telecast on Ion Television, Sundance TV, TNT, WE tv, WGN America and Bounce TV.

Since mid-2020, selected seasons of Law & Order have been available for streaming on Peacock along with Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. However, unlike some shows on Peacock such as selected seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit which are free, access to Law & Order requires a paid Peacock subscription.

Cancelation and possible revival

On May 14, 2010, NBC officially canceled Law & Order, opting instead to pick up Law & Order: Los Angeles for a first season and renew Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for a twelfth. Creator Dick Wolf continued to pressure the series' producer NBC Universal to make a deal with TNT, which held syndication rights to the show, for a twenty-first season if an acceptable license fee could be bargained. Talks between the two started up after upfronts. However, TNT said in a statement it was not interested in picking the show up for a new season.

After TNT discussions fell through, cable network AMC also considered reviving Law & Order; however, attempts to revive it failed, and according to creator Dick Wolf, the series "moved into the history books".

In February 2015, NBC considered bringing the series back for a 10-episode limited series.

Spin-offs, tie-ins, and adaptations

The longevity and success of Law & Order has spawned five American television series (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Law & Order: Los Angeles, and Law & Order True Crime), as well as a television film (Exiled: A Law & Order Movie), all of which use the name Law & Order. Although there were fears initially that the failure of such shows could hurt the original series, it was felt the brand name was needed because of the commercial desirability such a brand name creates. To differentiate it from other series in the franchise, Law & Order is often referred to as "The Mother Ship" by producers and critics.

The series (and its spin-offs) shared a universe with the series Homicide: Life on the Street, with the two sharing several crossover episodes.

The original series has also been adapted for British television as Law & Order: UK, with the setting changed to London. Similarly, Law & Order: Criminal Intent has been adapted for French and Russian television under the respective titles Paris enquêtes criminelles and Закон и порядок. Преступный умысел, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has also had a Russian version, Закон и Порядок: Отдел Оперативных Расследований.

Awards and honors

Law & Order has been nominated for numerous awards in the television industry over the span of its run. Among its wins are the 1997 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Male Actor in a Drama Series for Sam Waterston in 1999 and Jerry Orbach in 2005 (awarded after his death), and numerous Edgar Awards for Best Episode in a Television Series Teleplay.

In 2002, Law & Order was ranked No. 24 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. The show also placed No. 27 on Entertainment Weekly's "New TV Classics" list.

In 2013, TV Guide ranked Law & Order #14 on their list of the 60 Greatest Shows of All Time.

Home media

A box set titled Law & Order Producer's Collection was released on VHS in 2000. The 3-tape set included six episodes of the series.

Universal Studios has released fourteen seasons on DVD in Region 1, along with the complete series. Law & Order: The Complete Series boxed set features all 20 seasons. Each season is individually packaged (in tray-stack style), with all new cover-art (including new cover art for the seasons that have been released). The set also includes a 50-page full-color book titled "The Episode Guide". Along with episode names and synopsis, there is trivia, facts about the making of the show, liner notes, and over 80 full-color photos. In Region 2, Universal Playback has released the first seven seasons on DVD in the UK. In Region 4, Universal Pictures has released all twenty seasons on DVD in Australia and New Zealand.

TitleEp#Release dates
Region 1Region 2Region 4
The 1st Year22October 15, 2002/June 4, 2013 (slimline set)June 16, 2003April 2, 2003/August 31, 2011 (slimline set)
The 2nd Year22May 4, 2004/June 3, 2014 (slimline set)February 28, 2005August 31, 2011
The 3rd Year22May 24, 2005/June 3, 2014 (slimline set)November 21, 2005August 31, 2011
The 4th Year22December 6, 2005/June 3, 2014 (slimline set)July 17, 2006August 31, 2011
The 5th Year23April 3, 2007/June 3, 2014 (slimline set)July 23, 2007August 31, 2011
The 6th Year23December 2, 2008/May 26, 2015 (slimline set)February 16, 2009August 31, 2011
The 7th Year23January 19, 2010/May 26, 2015 (slimline set)April 12, 2010August 31, 2011
The 8th Year24December 7, 2010/May 26, 2015 (slimline set)August 31, 2011
The 9th Year24December 6, 2011 (slimline set)August 3, 2016
The 10th Year24February 28, 2012 (slimline set)August 3, 2016
The 11th Year24November 6, 2012 (slimline set)August 3, 2016
The 12th Year24February 26, 2013 (slimline set)October 5, 2016
The 13th Year24November 5, 2013 (slimline set)October 5, 2016
The 14th Year24September 14, 2004/February 25, 2014 (slimline set)October 5, 2016
The 15th Year24November 4, 2014 (slimline set)March 2, 2017
The 16th Year22November 4, 2014 (slimline set)March 2, 2017
The 17th Year22November 4, 2014 (slimline set)March 2, 2017
The 18th Year18May 5, 2015 (slimline set)April 5, 2017
The 19th Year22May 5, 2015 (slimline set)April 5, 2017
The 20th Year23May 5, 2015 (slimline set)April 5, 2017
The Complete Series456November 8, 2011 (box set)November 16, 2016